Thursday, June 26, 2014


crowd at the gates
As I watched magnificent Borobudur temple during the storm and rain from the safety of my hotel during the night of May 14th, I decided to go back down since I flew to this event specially all the way from Europe. Luckily the rain had stopped around 9pm and I asked for a driver in the Hotel's lobby. 

Several people were scheduled to go down at 10:30pm and I joined them. Our driver tried to let us exit at the west gate but we were denied entry. We were told that nobody was allowed into the inner temple grounds until mid-night and that we had to go to the more busy eastern gate. 

Reaching the eastern gate around 11pm we could see masses of people gathering at the gates. I made it all the way to the front and waited until it was almost midnight. At that time there was no way I could have made it to the gate because of the huge crowd. However, the police forces started to build up with all kinds of uniformed and armed guards. They made announcements in Indonesian language but of course I did not understand anything. Only when I saw the guards forming a line with their police batons dawned it on me that they wanted us to move back, which was really impossible due to the mass of people behind us. 

They finally informed us that we had to walk one by one towards the check points, show our ID tags and open our bags. Several guards kept checking me and their own nervousness made me nervous, despite the fact that i was on the proximity of one of the most important Buddhist temples. 

I finally made it in as one of the first persons and for sure one of the first non-Indonesians. Just what I had hoped for, since taking photos of Borobudur at night during Vesak festival and without any people on it was just like a dream come true!

I had seen the temple in the dark morning hours, during sunrise and sunset and during day time but at midnight in the fog and clouds had a special touch to it. 

Most people started to gather on the west side of the temple at the same spot where we had the opening ceremonies in the afternoon. The lawn was damp from the rain and fog yet people used mats and plastic covers to sit down. 

A Chinese Buddhist nun and a Buddhist lay women opened the chanting and prayers while another lay woman stuck the ceremonial bell with a beam suspended on ropes. All of this started in the early morning hours of the 15th May, after we had been in ceremonies and processions all day long. The timing of Vesak day ceremonies is what confused many people I had met during the day. They were all thinking that the ceremonies will happen in the afternoon and evening of May 15th, but in fact it was all starting the day before and went well into the early morning hours of the next day.

To the sound of rhythmic beating of the drum and the hanging bell, the monks slowly started to appear group by group and getting seated on the stage before the big Buddha statue and Borobudur temple. It was difficult for me to follow the ceremony since all of it was done in Indonesian language but the ritual opening of the night time ceremonies went underway with an official chorus and opening prayers. 

I am more familiar with the Theravada side of Buddhism, so I could follow the prayers and chanting of the Theravada monks which followed the chorus. By then the whole lawn in front of the stage was filled with thousands of people. Behind the stage and around Borobudur temple many hundreds of people took their seats on the ground, many of whom were photographers with their tripods strategically positioned. 

At 2am 15 minutes and 37 seconds, following a long meditation of the Buddhist sangha and lay people the official Vesak ritual started to take place. Again the ceremonial bell was struck in a rhythmic way, followed by the drum and chanting. The full moon was standing right over us and Borobudur temple as the fog and clouds moved through. Luckily no more rain!

Chanting and prayers were conducted by each Buddhist group. Theravada Buddhist monks started again, followed by Chinese Buddhist monk chanting and by what I call "Himalaya region" prayers, since I am not too familiar with the various Buddhist schools of Mahayana Buddhism.

The chanting went on for several hours, way beyond the initially scheduled lighting of the ceremonial lampions, which was said to happen at 2:30am. Our driver was scheduled to pick us up an hour after sending the lampions into the night sky, thus around 3:30am but it actually happened much later, around 4:30am. 

The ceremonies and chanting in the proximity of the temple
was one of the most intense experiences I have ever been part of and it was well worth all the effort to fly halfway around the world. The lampions which were ascending into the night sky was something I had seen many times before at various festivals in Thailand though. Many people seemed to come specially for this or to enjoy it at the end of a very auspicious day. It didn't see that many lampions, certainly not thousands, but it might have been less due to the earlier rain or the foggy weather in the early morning hours. However, it was an amazing experience which takes place in the largest Muslim nation on earth. A bit more information in English would have helped, but would also take away the "surprise" factor of an already awesome experience.


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